At the start of September, the dramatic airlift evacuations of campers hemmed in by the Creek Fire at Mammoth Pool in Northern California captivated the country, presaging what has since become a horrifying season of conflagrations across the West. The California Air National Guard’s harrowing rescue mission to Mammoth Pool drew national attention because it seemed to portray an idyllic wilderness landscape converted into a hellscape. As California’s wildfires often do, it illustrated the threat of climate change in brutal monochrome.
Mammoth Pool, though, is not a wild alpine lake. It, and the entire Upper San Joaquin River watershed, are pieces of an elaborately engineered series of dams, reservoirs, penstocks, and power plants known as the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. Big Creek provides Southern California Edison, America’s second-largest electric utility, with its largest source of carbon-free power. As the Creek Fire engulfed Mammoth Pool and raced south toward Big Creek’s other reservoirs, Southern California Edison evacuated the facility, losing nearly a gigawatt of flexible electric capacity in the midst of spiking power demand.
California’s grid operators managed to avoid rolling blackouts that weekend by issuing an emergency statewide call for power conservation. Over the past several years, explosive wildfires have emphasized the mounting threat that climate-exacerbated natural disasters pose to California’s electrical grid. Sweeping Public Safety Power Shutoffs, which aim to prevent new fires by shutting off electrical service to targeted areas during risky weather conditions, have reinforced consumers’ sense of that threat; this past weekend, high heat and low humidity led electric utilities to cut off power to tens of thousands of customers. California’s proliferating wildfires, which this year include six of the 20 largest fires in state history, are a predictable consequence of climate change, globalization, and misguided land management. But even as climate change fans the fires, those fires also threaten efforts to combat climate change. The crisis at Big Creek illustrates the mounting danger that worsening natural disasters pose to California’s renewable power systems in particular.
The first components of Big Creek were blasted out of the Sierra Nevadas over a century ago, a distant outpost in a far-reaching campaign to secure new power sources for greater Los Angeles and its vast network of electric streetcars. Constructed 240 miles from the population it served, Big Creek’s transmission lines remained the world’s longest and highest-voltage for decades, while Big Creek itself became a coveted vacation destination. The facility’s reservoirs and a nearby company lodge drew Los Angeles’s well-to-do—the direct predecessors of the campers rescued from Mammoth Pool. Over the subsequent decades, the Big Creek complex has expanded in concert with Southern California’s population to become the largest source of hydroelectric power in a state studded with major dams. In more recent years, as the state has turned its attention to climate change, Big Creek’s ability to provide both steady baseload power and rapid-response peaking power without emitting carbon dioxide has made it a vital piece of Southern California’s electricity supply.
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Now, though, the company town of Big Creek has been evacuated and burned, and the fire-damaged facility itself remains offline. Though generation at Big Creek had already shrunk due to drought in the preceding weeks, it played a crucial role in keeping lights and air conditioners on during California’s sweeping August heat waves, when capacity shortages forced California grid operators to order the state’s first rolling blackouts in nearly 20 years.
At the same time as those climate-exacerbated heat waves increase electrical demand, climate-exacerbated wildfires and droughts are taking renewable power plants offline. Even as Big Creek lies idle, San Diego’s Sunrise PowerLink, one of California’s largest solar-power transmission conduits, has also been shut down by the Valley Fire. Invasive grasses and shifting weather patterns are leading wildfire into even California’s deserts, potentially threatening the region’s vast solar farms. And the massive smoke plumes that carpeted much of California—in themselves representing immense emissions of carbon dioxide—have also reduced the amount of sunlight reaching solar panels across the state.
Without a doubt, climate change threatens the reliability of fossil-fueled power stations as well. Despite ill-informed claims to the contrary, during the recent power shortages renewable power resources proved themselves at least as reliable as coal and natural gas. Nevertheless, California’s diverse portfolio of renewable energy technologies are especially threatened by climate-fueled wildfires and droughts precisely because they are intertwined with the landscape, drawing on pockets of reliable wind, stretches of plunging river, and expanses of uninterrupted sunshine.
Over the past few years, millions of Americans have begun to directly experience climate change in visceral, obvious, and often terrifying ways. The West Coast’s horrific and inescapable fire season may just provoke broader climate action. But as America belatedly awakens to the comprehensive threat posed by climate change, that threat is itself expanding. We are facing a vicious double bind, as climate change creates disasters which themselves undermine climate progress.
Grid operators and government regulators have yet to fully acknowledge this reality. August’s power shortage stemmed originally from the state Public Utilities Commission’s years-long reluctance to order enough new renewable resources to replace closing fossil fuel plants. When August’s climate-exacerbated heat waves prompted rolling blackouts, California regulators responded by extending the lifetimes of the state’s largest fossil-fuel-burning power plants. Four massive coastal natural gas plants, which had been slated to retire in response to strict state environmental regulations, have now been resurrected to help buttress California’s electrical grid against its increasingly inhospitable climate. While those emergency decisions solved the immediate problem of insufficient power capacity, they also guaranteed that future heat waves will be even hotter.
Instead of such shortsighted measures, California needs to double down on climate solutions that will help our power system survive the coming decades’ intensifying disasters. Demand-response programs, which have gotten lots of buzz but little action in California, can shift major electrical loads to better accommodate future heat waves, while distributed renewables like rooftop solar and widespread electricity storage systems can make both urban and rural areas less vulnerable to transmission-line failures. Climate-resilient design, which can be as straightforward—if expensive—as burying transmission lines, can make vital pieces of infrastructure both less vulnerable and less dangerous within changing landscapes. Beyond such technological fixes, returning wild lands across the state to the traditional prescribed burning practices of their indigenous residents also has the potential to ease wildfires’ severity. Southern California Edison, for its part, prevented even worse devastation at Big Creek by conducting regular prescribed burns in a tentative but encouraging partnership with the North Fork Mono Tribe, on whose lands Big Creek sits.
In the midst of breathtaking destruction, the Big Creek disaster demonstrates how solving climate change gets harder as the climate warms. Adaptation remains possible, and offers vast rewards, but achieving those solutions will only become more challenging the longer we wait. The best solutions are expensive, and neither private utilities nor state agencies are matching their spending to their ambitions. But the costs of inaction are far, far higher. Every American is witnessing how climate change itself threatens climate progress. The only sane solution is to recommit to rapid, sweeping climate action.